Is the theme of singleness in the Bible? While we find romance and marriage celebrated in the Bible (e.g., Song of Solomon), we also find lifelong singleness described as a gift and calling from God for some Christians. What are we to make of the fact that both Jesus and Paul, themselves single, celebrated the decision to remain single for the sake of the kingdom? In our churches, how can we take their teachings on singleness to heart? I recently got a chance to dialogue about these issues with author and speaker Pieter Valk, who has a heart for helping Christians understand biblical teachings on singleness and for helping celibate Christians find family. He himself has committed to vocational singleness for the sake of the gospel and is the founder of Equip, which exists to equip the church to better love sexual minorities.
Q. What does the culture around us teach about singleness?
Outside of the Church, the average American has been taught to idolize romance by the Disney Channel and Taylor Swift songs, and in general by most aspects of culture impacted by the sexual revolution. We’re offered a beautiful depiction of connection that will fulfill and satisfy more than anything else can. Why? Because it’s exclusive, it’s special. But not just with anyone.
The idol of romance promises us we’ll be united with the person meant specifically for each of us, who matches each of us perfectly. We’re promised it’ll be easy, effortless, and self-sustaining, because it’s the love we were destined for. That’s the magical lie of romance idolatry. And that false hope tends to destroy every relationship we step into, dooming every connection to fall short of the effortless, deeply-satisfying, Disney romance we’ve been promised.
Ultimately, the idol of romance promises us love, belonging, family, pleasure, and an escape from loneliness. But in reality, it leads to casual connection, thoughtless contraception, abortion, codependency, adultery, divorce, and loneliness.
Singleness (and particularly a sex-less, romance-less singleness) is therefore treated as relational bankruptcy.
Q. Has the modern Western church bucked this trend?
Unfortunately, modern Western Christians haven’t done much better in this area. From an early age, parents and pastors highlight Bible stories and holidays centering around romance and marriage, while often treating singleness as something weird and even unbiblical. When parents comment, “When you get married…” or ask, “Are you dating anyone?” they leave no room for stories or celebrations of singleness for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. Christian teens assume they are free to indulge in romance as much as they want, as long as they don’t cross certain lines. 72% of pastors surveyed by Equip believe “If a person desires to marry and have kids, then God wants them to marry.”
Specifically, as it relates to singleness, Christians conflate the abstinent singleness we’re all born into with the kind of vocational singleness Jesus and Paul commend in Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7. We lead our kids in our churches to believe that they have to be single long-term only if they want to. We misunderstand the gift of singleness to be an exchange of giving up human intimacy to gain more intimacy with God. Or Christian singles mistakenly believe that the point of gifted singleness is to give up family in order to gain the freedom to go anywhere and do anything, to focus on self, and to be freed from responsibility or compromising with others.
Singleness in the Bible: “We misunderstand the gift of singleness to be an exchange of giving up human intimacy to gain more intimacy with God.”
This confusion leads to painful results. Half of Christian marriages end in divorce, and a 2017 Barna Study found that singles struggle more with depression, anxiety, doubt in God’s existence, and rebounding from doubt.
Q. What does the Bible teach about singleness?
In Matthew 19, Jesus institutes a beautiful alternative to Christian marriage. In a debate with religious elites about biblical grounds for divorce, Jesus suggests an even stricter standard and calls believers back to God’s original intentions for lifelong monogamous opposite-sex marriage. In response to what the disciples consider a jokingly prudish guideline, they sarcastically suggest, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
To their surprise, Jesus responds by entertaining their suggestion and encouraging some never to marry, but for a purpose:
“Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” (Matt.19:11-12)
Singleness in the Bible: “For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul then confirms the design, purpose, and value of the vocational singleness instituted by Christ. They both describe a calling to a lifetime abstinent singleness for the sake of kingdom work with undivided attention.
It’s a calling. God has a preference for whether he gives us the gift of vocational singleness or the gift of Christian marriage, and He wants us to seek his preference. In Matthew 19:11, in his response to the disciples’ shock about his high standard for marriage, Jesus says that only those to whom the calling of marriage has been given will accept his teachings about marriage. And then in verse 12, Jesus says that only those to whom the calling of vocational singleness has been given will accept his teachings about vocational singleness.
Jesus says that God calls us to either marriage or vocational singleness, and God gives us a gift to thrive in that vocation. Then in 1 Corinthians 7:7, Paul says that he wishes all were like him—all were called to vocational singleness—but God has given to each his own gift. God has called some to vocational singleness. God has called others to marriage.
Singleness in the Bible: “Jesus says that God calls us to either marriage or vocational singleness, and God gives us a gift to thrive in that vocation.”
And, in my understanding, it’s for a lifetime. God intends for vocational singleness to be committed and permanent. In Matthew 19:1-12, Jesus speaks of a call beyond temporary singleness and compares vocational singleness to being a eunuch, a state which is permanent. We cannot imagine Jesus providing the 100-fold blessing promised in Luke 18:28-30 to someone who has only temporarily given up the prospect of marriage and children, only to later get married.
In 1 Corinthians 7:1-40, Paul recognizes and praises committed singleness and teaches that it is better to keep a commitment to vocational singleness than get married. Then in 1 Timothy 5:5-15, Paul reaffirms that a commitment to vocational singleness is good and to break that commitment is a sin. If that wasn’t enough, the disciples of the apostles, and their disciples unanimously understood Jesus and Paul to be commending permanent celibacy, instead of waiting for marriage. We’re talking about people like Clement of Rome (the disciple and successor of Peter the Apostle), Ignatius of Antioch (the disciple of John the Apostle), Justin the Martyr, Athenagoras of Athens, Polycrates of Ephesus, Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Methodius of Olympus.
It’s a call to give up romance, dating, marriage, sex, and children. In Matthew 19:1-12, Jesus talks about vocational singleness as a giving up of romance, marriage, sex, and children. And then in Luke 18:28-30, Jesus promises a 100-fold of brothers, sisters, and children now in this present time to those who give up the potential for a spouse and children for the sake of the kingdom. In 1 Corinthians 7:1-40, Paul confirms that vocational singleness involves giving up sex, romance, marriage, and children but recognizes that those called to vocational singleness still need committed companionship.
Singleness in the Bible: “In Luke 18:28-30, Jesus promises a 100-fold of brothers, sisters, and children now in this present time to those who give up the potential for a spouse and children for the sake of the kingdom.”
It’s still a call to lifelong, lived-in human family. In Isaiah 56:3-5, the celibate is promised family, belonging, and honor equal to the married person, that they will be full and equal members of the family of God, that they will be spiritual parents in ways just as great as biological parents. Then in 1 Timothy 5:5-15, Paul recognizes early families of celibate people by commending a committed community of celibate women. Every time Jesus and Paul speak of vocational singleness, they seem to recognize in some way that celibates still need human intimacy in permanent, lived-in family.
It’s a call to do kingdom work with undivided attention. God intended for those in vocational singleness to use their availability, primarily from not raising children, to do kingdom work that those raising children don’t have the time, energy, or financial freedom to do.
In Matthew 19:1-12, Jesus invites his disciples to consider giving up the potential for spouse and children in order to live “like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom,” referring to Old Testament eunuchs who commonly worked for a king, managing and building up the king’s kingdom.
In 1 Corinthians 7:1-40, Paul explains that vocational singleness involves giving up a spouse and children to be more concerned with the work of the Church. In 1 Timothy 5:5-15, Paul commends faithful members of the community of celibate women who have fully committed themselves to the Lord.
Singleness in the Bible: “Paul explains that vocational singleness involves giving up a spouse and children to be more concerned with the work of the Church.”
Imagine if 10% of Christians focused all of their attention on attending to wealth, inequality, racial division, homelessness, mental illness, and a lack of care for immigrants and refugees! Imagine how all of this would bring the gospel alive for those curious about Jesus and draw people to Him because a meaningful minority of Christians are willing to give some of the things our world today says are most valuable and instead spend their lives healing the wounds of others. All because they really believe that Jesus is who he says he is and that the truest life, the fullest life, is found laboring shoulder to shoulder next to him.
Q. What are some ways churches unknowingly marginalize singles?
Because many churches conflate the singleness we are born into with vocational singleness, the few times those churches attempt to teach about singleness for Christians, they fail to teach about what’s actually in the Scriptures. Many churches see singleness as a liability for leadership instead of recognizing healthy vocational singleness as an opportunity for greater availability to one’s church and those they disciple.
Many churches lead Christians to assume they will get married and celebrate those marriages lavishly while doing nothing to celebrate committed Christian singleness. Many churches assume that God will meet the intimacy needs of those with the gift of singleness, so those churches don’t take any practical steps to provide family for vocational singles. If celibacy is mentioned, kids grow up in many churches learning from the words and actions of the leaders that celibacy is a call to loneliness for the sake of the gospel—and to pray God doesn’t call them to that miserable and exceptional vocation.
“Many churches assume that God will meet the intimacy needs of those with the gift of singleness, so those churches don’t take any practical steps to provide family for vocational singles.”
Q. How can churches do better?
In contrast, churches can teach what Jesus and Paul actually had to say about a lifetime calling to celibate singleness for the sake of kingdom work with undivided attention. If pastors only ever teach about temporary singleness focused on self or casual dating, should we be surprised when few are living out the celibacy of Jesus and Paul?
Second, churches can value vocational singleness by hiring vocational singles as head ministers, preaching pastors, worship leaders, youth pastors, and children’s pastors. Kids needs to see vocational singleness valued.
Third, churches can celebrate vocational singles committing to their calling with just as much pomp and circumstance as you do weddings. Then celebrate the kingdom work that vocational singles are able to do with their undivided attention just as much as we honor kids.
Fourth, churches can guide every Christian young adult to open-handedly discern between vocational singleness and Christian marriage by creating anticipation for discernment from an early age and teaching teens general Christian discernment. Then in their 20s and 30s, help young adults ask God which gift he wants to give and embrace his calling. Discernment practices may include studying theology, addressing emotional barriers in counseling, considering the kingdom work they’re called to, praying in community, and giving God time.
“Churches help those called to vocational singleness find lifelong, lived-in human family.”
Fifth, churches help those called to vocational singleness find lifelong, lived-in human family. Gather singles and cast vision for intentional Christian community. Offer coaching, accountability, and financial support. The first act of the Church was to gather celibate women and offer them practical support to build family with each other. It’s at the core of the Church’s DNA to foster family for vocational singles.
Q. What are some ways you have offered your singleness to God to be used for his kingdom purposes?
I’m a proud godfather and blessed with the responsibility of helping his parents raise him (and his siblings) to be faithful Christian disciples. I’m the founding brother of the Nashville Family of Brothers, an ecumenically Christian brotherhood building family for men called to vocational singleness. I’m the founder and executive director of Equip, the premier consulting and training solution for churches aspiring to be places where gay people thrive according to a traditional sexual ethic (we’ve trained over 20,000 Christian leaders). I’m a licensed professional counselor specialized in serving gay Christians hoping to steward their sexualities according to a traditional sexual ethic. I’m a writer and speaker about discernment, vocational singleness, and LGBT+ topics according to a traditional sexual ethic in places like Christianity Today and at over 75 churches, Christian universities, and campus ministries. And I’m a teacher and aspiring deacon in the Anglican Church in North America about celibacy and sexuality.
Each of these is made possible by my availability in vocational singleness, and I’m daily grateful for God’s call on my life!